n+1, Version 2.0

Dushko Petrovich and Roger White did not think art was dead, but there was no question in their minds that it was seriously ill. The gallery shows they went to were dull and derivative, the writing they read in the big art magazines either thoughtless, breathless or reactionary. All anyone seemed to want to talk about was how a work blurred this or that distinction, or challenged this or that perception. “Then you’d go see the art,” Mr. Petrovich said last week, “and you’d think: It’s not really doing that! It’s actually behaving pretty conventionally.”

Fed up but hopeful, the two painters decided to take action. And so, with help from their friends at n+1—a literary journal founded in 2004 with the modest intention of broadly rehabilitating American thought—Mr. Petrovich and Mr. White set to work on a new magazine about contemporary art. They called it Paper Monument, and decided that it would come out twice a year.

In the messianic first issue, which shipped to bookstores last week with an initial print run of 2,500 copies, the editors resolved to put forth something more than a buyer’s guide for the very rich—to offer, instead, a form of art criticism that rejects the language of publicity and avoids fossilized jargon pilfered carelessly from the academy. “There are enemies out there,” is the magazine’s alluring central conceit, “but we are stronger than them and we have some thoughts.”

N+1 too, was borne of frustration, and the tone its editors took in introducing their project was one of optimistic, confrontational disgust. The Eggers-led McSweeney’s crowd, they said, were a bunch of dumb kids who had abandoned their critical faculties; the literary critic James Wood was a mean old man who had given up on contemporary writing. As an intern at n+1 last summer, this reporter found it hard not to be inspired by the editors’ vision—expressed in their refreshing willingness to boldly distinguish between good and bad, the seriousness with which they talked about rehabilitating intellectual life in America, the Nabokovian energy of their contempt. Plus their parties were fun.

Paper Monument—billed officially as n+1’s “sister publication”—works hard to replicate its sibling’s confrontational tone. In the first issue, an impeccably styled opening manifesto—self-consciously labeled a “polemic”—spells out the editors’ brief against the art world status quo. Written in the past tense (a device, Mr. Petrovich explained, meant to evoke “a kind of weariness combined with hope that the era has ended”), the essay describes a time in the not-so-distant yore when the very act of looking at art had become a deadening exercise in tourism. “Everywhere you went,” the editors write, “there was a guide, a pamphlet, a wall text to lead you through the wilderness. Don’t worry, kind visitor: Everything here means something.” All in all, the art scene was “a lousy neighborhood,” where “the rent was insane, the landlords were indifferent, and the people upstairs just wouldn’t shut up.”

Bracing stuff. But there’s a problem, which becomes clearer in the issue’s two other “polemics”—the first an angry rant titled “New York Must End,” in which D.C.-based Christopher Hsu comes out against “ethnic” restaurants; the second a sharp denunciation of rock music in which John Daniels declares that “if your favorite band exists, it is already part of the problem.”

Both pieces have their share of nice phrases—Daniels: “Mechanization means never having to wonder what to pretend to desire next”—but they also feel showy and self-serving, passing off histrionics as history and anger as wisdom. n+1 has been guilty of the same thing, and some readers have been turned off by the menacing, pedagogical tone with which they've attacked work that doesn’t meet their exacting standards. In the front of Paper Monument, too, the arguments seem to set up a sort of nasty bear trap by which readers who disagree with a piece’s iconoclasm can be dismissed as squares too fragile for the writer’s unforgiving honesty. In reality, of course, one needn’t be a cultural reactionary to think that making fun of the meatpacking district in 2007, as Mr. Hsu does with relish, is about as provocative as championing Radiohead in 2005.

Mr. Petrovich defends the polemical style, saying it has the potential to start conversations. “People are forced to talk back to it,” he said in an e-mail, “or talk about it.” Trouble is, the uncompromising way that arguments are sometimes expressed in both Paper Monument and n+1 can leave little room for talking. Who, after all, wants to talk to people who think everyone else is stupid? And anyway, why fly all these flags, deploy all these sweeping indictments? Why not just be the better magazine? As a friend put it to me, if Paper Monument has a problem with buzzwords, “why not just write a wonderful piece about a painting that doesn’t fall back on them?”

In fairness, Paper Monument does that too. When Mr. Petrovich argues for Neo Rauch over Tomma Abts, or Mr. White explores the line between forgery and appropriation, or Katie Sonnenborn chronicles Peter Nagy’s foray into the Indian avant-garde, the magazine seems finally to be practicing what it preaches, approaching a more thoughtful, adventurous sort of art criticism.

And as for the polemical style, one can’t help but notice that all that messianic posturing bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the self-important plaques and pamphlets that the editors lament. Which may be precisely the point. In media as in art, sometimes telling people what you're up to is a safer bet than praying they’ll understand. “Everything here means something.” Paper Monument would do well to hang that sign with care.